I chose my grandparent’s farm to think about. It popped into my head as I went into the fenced-in garden outside my room. The smell of kikuyu grass, green-brown thatch, papery and damp overwhelmed me, bringing back the old farm I visited as a child. In the mornings, when they watered, the scent is strongest, and I could be ten again, running through the sprinkler, tackling one of my brothers and getting slammed to the turf in return.
Dad’s here today. He’ll tell me off soon. It’s obvious it’s coming by his constant movement around the room, avoiding my gaze. When he does stop and look at me, that’s when he’ll roar, tell me I need to move on, stop my nonsense, forgive, live life again. Terrible condescending clichés fathers tell their daughters, thinking they’ll have an effect.
Today the smell of the grass reminds me of paddocks slowly stretching up and away, west of the house, the direction storms came from. My grandparents, my parents, we kids, sat on the veranda to watch them roll in. Out there most nights, the parents drank beer while we all watched dark, lightning-laden clouds creep toward us. The flickering television in the living room pulled us inside from time to time, but conversation, laughter and thunderclaps overhead lured us out again.
Another day passes and Mum visits. She asks if there’s anything I want.
‘No,’ I say, ‘I’ve got everything I need. It’s great in here.’
She fidgets, no longer bothering to hide her feelings. This is my third stint, not in this room exactly. The first time was after my accident. I had clocked off work and was driving, listening to music. The country road I drove down had no other cars on it. Taking the corners at speed, breaking before the apex and then accelerating out again, I remember thinking, I’m good at this. My husband never thought so. He’d told me thousands of times I would never be as good behind the wheel as him. It was just a fact that men had better reflexes and judgement, more control. They were also not as reckless.
As the corners kept coming, I pushed down harder on the accelerator. Coming over a crest and out of a long left-hander, a kangaroo jumped in front of me. My eyes were on the road, I’m sure of that, but I’m not sure if I was focused on what I was seeing.
I couldn’t do anything but hold my course and hit the animal. After the initial thwack, the car shook violently, grinding to a halt as I ran off the road. I got out. The front left headlight had been knocked out, and the bonnet and the left panel over the wheel crumpled. Lying next to the vehicle, the creature had been ripped open from its head down one side of its body. From its pouch jumped a joey. Small and bloody, it hopped in circles, like it was trying to shake off the pain inflicted upon it.
The farmer who found me called an ambulance.
‘Do ambulances take animals to rescue shelters?’ I asked.
Handing me a towel while retrieving his gun from his ute, to deal with the suffering beast, he told me to sit down. That’s when I realised I had blood running down my face.
At the hospital, a nurse asked my name: Jenny Hughes. Age? 35. Relationship status? Married. Address? 4 Mair Street, Kyneton, Victoria. Occupation?
I interrupted her, asking again if there were ambulances for animals. I knew it wasn’t true, but it seemed silly they wouldn’t treat animals the same as humans. A doctor who had come in to look me over, shot the nurse a sidelong glance, saying, ‘Keep in for observation.’
Coming up the road from town, on the left side of my grandparent’s house, is the orchard. The last time I visited, the almond tree still stood, covered in green foliage. All the other fruit trees were gone. That was five years ago. Ten years before that, the house became unused. The thing I’m trying to recall is the space between the orchard and house. I can recollect the side of the structure. It’s white, and in my head, I can clearly see the window of the toilet: pearl bubbled, opaque. There was a tap around that side, somewhere. During a drought, I took a drink from it but forgot to turn it off. I was young, in primary school. Still, it didn’t stop my grandfather from banishing me to the back paddock for the evening, yelling from the gate I was to come back when it got dark and not a moment before. Mum didn’t challenge him. I can see her behind him, anxious, watching me as I angrily kicked clods of earth, walking away.
To the rear of the house, also on the left, adjacent to the orchard, stood the old oleander. Huge, the biggest oleander I ever saw. Behind that, the water tank set up high. For a few summers, my uncles rigged an outdoor shower underneath it. On boiling hot summer days when trying to cool off, the water came out freezing, which I always forgot. For privacy, they put up hessian. I wish I could describe that smell. Musty, in a rustic, bedspreads way, if that makes sense.
Next to visit is my husband. I leave my glasses in their case on the bedside table, preferring to see his outline only. It won’t be a happy visit. He hates hospitals. They remind him of Matty. He doesn’t say this, but I know he’s thinking it. My room’s not to his liking either. ‘Couldn’t they have given you one that didn’t face west and directly into the setting sun?’
Looking out the window and past the grass and grounds, the earth, hot and dry, shimmers in the sun, I tell him, ‘If you were out there now, you wouldn’t look to the distance. You’d keep your eyes on the ground. Snakes, dead animals, cow paddies, I mean, you could step on anything, really.’
‘I can’t do this anymore.’ The desperation in his voice reminds me of little Matty and the long days and interrupted nights which would sometimes overwhelm us.
‘I’ve got it good in here.’
‘What, living in a fantasy world? But what have you got really, apart from other crazies?’
‘You’re wrong. Look at my wonderful room. Everything’s white. See? The walls, the sheets, the floor, even the television is sort of a palish cream. See? Much better than that morgue you want to drag me to. And, every day, nurses, doctors, all really nice people, come and attend to me. They feed me, bathe me, if I need it, give me pills and medicine, but most importantly, they check on me.’
‘You’re not the only one suffering, you know,’ he says.
‘Yeah, I can imagine,’ I say, ‘given you left him alone to fend for himself.’
The people attending me don’t like it when I get worked up. ‘How did it feel finding him mauled, bitten, bloody?’
They don’t like it when I scream either. ‘I told you. I FUCKEN TOLD YOU A HUNDRED FUCKEN TIMES!’
I remember the paddocks to the South and West, gently rolling upwards to the horizon. I remember the house and garden too. It’s the area outside this I am having trouble with.
First, I can only think about it within the context of winter, when the grass was wet, growing up past my ankles, in some places as high as my knees. And the paths, dark brown dirt, were trampled and slippery.
The cold was better than summer. I don’t know how my grandparents, aunties and uncles endured it, the heat, I mean. Like a massive blanket, thrown down and tucked in, it sweltered everything. And the sun, parching, burning, always there in cloudless skies. In their later years, they all got skin cancer of one kind or another.
Second, patches of my memory are blank. I can’t recollect what’s to the right of the woodpile, in front of the chickens. Peppermint trees maybe? And a big ant’s nest pops into my head, but that’s all I get. For the space between the chickens and dogs, there was a gate, I think, but I can’t see it. Between the dogs and tractor shed, I get the smell of grease and can see the outside of a small wooden workshop, but not inside.
I mean, I remember parts of that area clearly. The old truck, where we played, which for blinkers had yellow metal hands swinging out from the cab to indicate a left or right turn. And the big gum tree that stood over the truck, from which my uncles hung slaughtered livestock. Under it, they placed a massive metal plate to catch the innards they cut from pink, skinned carcasses.
A knock and a nurse pops her head around the door, ‘Can I come in?’ she says.
She is young, with long black hair, tied back in a straight ponytail. She has been here before. Karen.
‘Just here to do the morning rounds.’ She’s cheery and checks my chart. Filling a cup from the sink, she brings it over to give me my meds. Standing close to the bed, she takes my blood pressure, concentrating on pumping her contraption until she reaches the required pressure. She’s attractive. Big brown eyes, a skinny face but it suits her. As she releases the balloon, I watch her breathing, her chest inflating and deflating, her stomach rising and falling with it. She wears a metallic, flowery perfume. Five years ago, I bought the exact same one. Five years ago, I could have been her.
‘Would you like to go outside again this morning?’
‘Yes, I think I will.’
‘Before or after breakfast?’
‘Fine with me,’ she says.
She gets my dressing gown and throws open the door. As there’s a light rain falling, the sprinklers are off. Water glistens on blades of grass, and a rivulet is forming on the concrete footpath, running down to the garden bed and fence. The smell of kikuyu invades my nostrils. One of the doctors said I could go home soon if I want, maybe at the end of the week, but a while longer won’t hurt.
The more I think about my grandparent’s farm, the more I need these memories. Like behind the dogs and chickens stood the milking pen. I’d forgotten about that and Grandad squirting us with milk, while milking the cows. Opposite, the old grain shed. One summer, during a mouse plague, my brothers wanted to see how many they could kill. Somewhere behind the grain shed were the livestock yards, where I once spent a spring morning catching lambs for my uncles to mark. One of them said, ‘Pity she’s a girl, she would have made a good footballer.’ There’s the shearing shed, the disgusting long-drop toilet, the falling down hay shed. The further I go out from the house, the harder it is to plot all these correctly, where they were, and should be. I need to get it right.
I look back to Karen holding the door. ‘When I get out of here, I’m thinking of taking a trip.’
‘Sounds amazing. Will you go with your husband?’
Of course, she would say that. I’ll make sure I don’t mention it again. Hopefully she won’t pass it on. My husband would only be bored. He would want to drive all the way too, take control, go the route he feels most comfortable with, instead of the way my parents took when I was a kid, that’s if he let me go back to the old farm. He always knows best.
The rain pelts down and Karen yells at me to come back inside. Ignoring her, I follow the water running off the path and into the garden, forming a small stream. I always liked this, trickling fluid taking the easiest course, speeding along everything in its path: grass, twigs, seeds, leaves. I find a small stick to throw in, running alongside, to see how far it will go.
James Hannan lives in Chewton, Victoria and writes on his train commute to work in Melbourne. His short fiction has appeared in the Wild Goose, Styluslit, Prole, and BrainDrip.